Thursday, January 30, 2020

The very best birding binoculars under $500

In January 2020 I found these binoculars to be the very best under $500. The specs are all excellent and the materials are all the very best. On paper, these are all very similar. So I've scoured the internet looking for accurate reviews to help guide you in making a purchasing decision.

The very best birding binoculars under $500 are these:
  • Vortex Viper HD 8x42
  • Hawke Frontier ED 8x42
  • Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 8x42
  • Zeiss Terra ED 8x42

I also have found 4 binoculars in the $250 to $350 price range to recommend for birding.
  • Athlon Optics Midas G2 UHD 8x42
  • Bushnell Engage 8x42
  • Barska WP Level ED 8x42
  • Celestron Trailseeker ED 8x42

Read on to learn why I do NOT recommend the best selling birding binocular!

Many of the binocular reviews I found online are outdated or just plain wrong. A review from Bird Watchers Digest that ranks at position 2 in Google for "birding binoculars under $500" was written in 2003! Most binocular articles are slanted toward general use or hunting. Even if the articles have been updated, they often still have old specs. Many binocular models have been updated with ED glass and BaK-4 prisms in recent years. Many models have also recently become unavailable, across manufacturers. So I have to wonder if there is a supply or trade problem.

The good thing, though, is that there are more binoculars than ever before with excellent glass and materials. You really do have a wide choice from many excellent manufacturers at all price ranges. But this can make reaching a final decision more difficult and confusing. With any of the 8 here you will have no regrets.

Photo of Nikon Monarch 7 binocular
Cognitive bias says that since I recently bought these Nikon Monarch 7 
binoculars I should say they are the very best.

What makes a good birding binocular?


Birders demand more from their optics than any other user group.

Bird watching binoculars must be sharp and bright, even in low-light conditions, such as dawn and dusk or deep woods. The color rendition must be perfect, edge-to-edge. They must handle any weather by being waterproof and fog proof. They must be rugged and stand up to handling that might be considered abusive by some.

Additionally, the field of view must be as wide as possible for scanning the horizon and quickly locating a distant bird flying overhead. They must have sufficient comfortable adjustment for eyeglass wearers. They must be lightweight for carrying in the field all day. They must focus down to birds in the bushes nearly at arm's length or at a window feeder without having to step back.

Notice that I didn't say that they should magnify an image as large as possible? If you want to magnify distant birds you want a spotting scope, not a more powerful binocular.

The best magnification for bird watching binoculars are full-sized 8x42. These have the ideal magnification and best light gathering ability for bird watching. They have the widest field of view, which I value above many other specs for bird watching binoculars. Read my article on why 8x42 binoculars are the ideal size for bird watching.

Bird watching binoculars near $500 are in the "best value" range. Paying more money above this price has less and less return. You can pay $2000+ and get binoculars that are only optically 5% better. You can pay $2000 and get binoculars that aren't any better at all than the $500 pairs. On the other hand, if "status symbol" binoculars are important to you, then you'll be willing to pay the higher amount.

What do you look for in a birding binocular?


Below is a table of specs that I look for with an optimal range and a minimum acceptable range. These are my desired specs; they may not be yours. After the table I'll talk about why I desire the optimal specs listed. There are hundreds of binocular models. Only a very few, at any price, do I consider optimal in all specs.

Desired Birding Binocular Specs
Specification Optimal Minimum acceptable
Magnification 8x 7x to 10x
Objective lens >40 mm>32 mm
Field of View 8x >420 ft @ 1000 yds >390 ft @ 1000 yds
Field of View 10x >350 ft @ 1000 yds >330 ft @ 1000 yds
Close focus <6 ft <10 ft
Exit pupil >5 mm >4 mm
Eye relief >17.5 mm >15.5 mm
Weight <24 oz <30 oz

Why? 8x almost always gives a larger field of view, closer focus, larger exit pupil, longer eye relief, and lighter weight than the 10x version of the same model binocular. These are all good things. They make finding and viewing birds easier and give a brighter, more crisply-focused image.

Eye relief is only important if you wear eyeglasses. These binoculars may last you 20 years. If you don't wear eyeglasses now, you will likely do so in 20 years! Longer is better, especially if the bridge of your nose sticks out farther than normal from the plane of your cornea. Did I just say you want longer eye relief for a big nose? Yes, I guess I did. However, larger eyeglass lenses also sit farther from your eyes, and will need more eye relief than smaller eyeglass lenses. This is a very important spec for me.

Close focus is for viewing close birds in the brush, hummingbirds at your window feeder, butterflies at your feet.

Wide field of view helps you more quickly locate birds. This is especially true for warblers hopping and flitting through the forest canopy or single swallows zigzagging high in the sky. It is necessary for scanning the horizon or doing a sea watch (where you spot birds by scanning with wide angle binoculars and then switch to a spotting scope when you've seen something). This is perhaps my most desired spec, all other things being equal.

The exit pupil of 5mm or above is simply the magnification divided into the objective lens size. Thus, 8x42 is 5.25, while 10x42 is 4.2. A spec for relative brightness is simply the exit pupil squared. So 8x42 has a relative brightness of 27.56 and a 10x42 binocular has a relative brightness of only 17.6. All this to tell you that in low light situations (dawn, dusk, forests, overcast) the 8x42 will be noticeably brighter and colorful. In full daylight in open country you will not see the difference.

Desired Birding Binocular Materials/Construction


Once you cross over $200 mark almost all binoculars will now be made with the very best materials. The rest of the cost is in how well and how much the manufacturer applies the materials and controls quality assurance.

All my recommendations for birding binoculars are the straight-barrel roof prism design. They are more rugged and easier to make waterproof. They are easier to align and keep in alignment. They don't have as good as depth-of-field as the zigzag Porro prism design. Roof prism binoculars are a bit more expensive at the low end of the price scale (you might get a better optical quality Porro prism for $300, but it might not be as rugged as a roof prism binocular at the same price). If your birding is going to be of birds out the window at your feeder, you might rather have a Porro prism binocular.

The best glass is extra low-dispersion (ED) glass. HD glass doesn't actually mean anything. It just sounds nice, like High Definition TV. Make sure all glass surfaces are "fully multi-coated."

The best prism material is BaK-4. They should be "phase coated." Dielectric mirror coatings on the prisms are better than silver coating.

Binoculars should have o-ring seals to keep out water and should withstand submersion in at least 3 feet (1 meter) of water for at least 10 minutes ("waterproof"). They should be filled with either nitrogen or argon inside to remove any water vapor and keep your binoculars from fogging on the inside ("fog proof"). Then you can take these out in rain or snow and be able to use them perfectly at all times.

The outer lenses are sometimes coated with a film that makes water bead up and run off, and keeps oil and dirt from sticking, and is scratch resistant.

Most birding binoculars now come with a soft rubber "armor" surface. That will enhance the ruggedness and, perhaps, provide some insulation to keep your hands warmer in cold weather?

The last thing to mention is the warranty. Most binoculars provide a repair or replacement for manufacturing defects for the life of the original buyer (or 25 years). That's as long as you still have proof of purchase ("limited lifetime warranty"). Some manufacturers have a lifetime "no fault" warranty. If you drop them off a cliff or drive off with them on the roof of your car and smash them or drive over them accidentally, they will be replaced. As long as they aren't lost or stolen, they will be replaced at no cost. Now that's standing behind your product!

For more information on binocular specs and materials, please see my birding binocular buying guide.

Best birding binoculars $400 to $500


There are four birding binoculars available at an online price of about $450-500. There is no additional competition until about $800, and these may still be better.

Model
Size
MSRP FOV @
1000 yds
Close
Focus
Exit
Pupil
Eye
Relief
Weight
Vortex Viper HD
8x42
$639 409 ft 6.5 ft 5.25 mm 18 mm 24.5 oz
Hawke Frontier ED
8x42
$519 426 ft 6.6 ft 5.25 mm 18 mm 24.4 oz
Nikon Monarch 7
8x42
$479 420 ft 8.2 ft 5.25 mm 17.1 mm 22.9 oz
Zeiss Terra ED
8x42
$449 410 ft 5.25 ft 5.25 mm 18 mm 25.6 oz

Specs and materials

Despite the manufacturers suggested retail price, Vortex Viper HD are consistently advertised online for under $475.

The Nikon Monarch 7 has wide field of view and light weight, but not enough so as to make it seriously better than the others. It weighs a bit less than the others but, again, probably not noticeable. The eye relief and close focus is adequate.

The Zeiss Terra ED has the closest focus. If butterflies and dragonflies are on your list of frequently-viewed wildlife, then getting 3 feet closer than the Nikons may be an important determining factor.

The Hawke Frontier ED has nearly optimal specs throughout.

There are no significant spec differences and no material differences that make any of these binoculars better or not. They are very similar. All the specs are good to optimum, with no short-comings. All use fully multi-coated ED glass and BaK-4 prisms with phase coatings and dielectric coatings. They are waterproof, fog proof, and have rubber armor.

Both the Vortex Viper and the Hawke Frontier come with the excellent "no fault" warranty that covers accidental damage. Zeiss and Nikon have a limited lifetime warranty against workmanship defects only.

I eliminated from consideration the Bushnell Forge 8x42 at $459, as it weighs over 30 ounces and also has close focus of 10 feet. The Vanguard Endeavor ED II 8x42 at $499 has only an average field of view at 377 feet and were tending toward the heavy side at 27 ounces.

Reviews


Last summer I purchased the Nikon Monarch 7 8x42 for myself. At the time I was mostly comparing with the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42. The real clincher for me was the difference in field of view: 420 feet for Monarch 7 versus only 330 feet for Monarch 5. That is a huge difference! For me it was worth the $200 price difference. That is the only real difference between those two binoculars, now that the Monarch 5 has been updated with ED glass. I found no chromatic aberration in the Monarch 7. There is some softness in focus at the very edge of the wide field. I'm very happy with my purchase. I replaced an old pair of Bushnell Legends 8x42 (the version before the great Legend L that recently went out of production). These were only 330 feet field of view and I wanted something better. Plus, I didn't heed the lens cleaning instructions and scratched away the lens coatings by using paper towels and my shirt tails to clean them! Lesson learned.

An Audubon buying guide from 2017 (audubon.org) selected the Zeiss Terra ED as its number one choice among several reviewers in the $200-$500 price range, with the Nikon Monarch 7 in second place. This same review selected the Vortex Viper as a clear winner in the $500-$1000 range. Though online they can be bought for the same under $500 price.

Best Binocular Review includes the Hawke Frontier in its list of best birding binoculars. This binocular won the 2019 "best birding binocular" award.

The Nikon Monarch 7 is listed in the Top 10 nature viewing binoculars by Optics4Birding, praising its extreme affordability and impressive image quality.

opticsreviewer.com names the Nikon Monarch 7 as the best binocular for 2019 in the $400-$799 range. Paul Johnson describes the wide field of view for Nikon Monarch 7 as giving a "picture window view." Indeed, that can be said for all 4 of these binoculars.

opticsreviewer.com then goes on to name the Zeiss Terra ED as the best birding binocular in the $300-$399 range, even though the manufacturers suggested retail price is $449, only $30 less than the Monarch 7. Elsewhere, Johnson declared the Zeiss Terra ED as preferable to the Nikon Monarch 5 ED, because of the focusing knob turns (1 rotation from close to infinity) and the wider field of view of the Zeiss.

Outdoor Gear Lab chose the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 as the Editor's Choice. "The only models that bested the Viper HD in our image quality testing were those that cost more than two thousand dollars." High praise. It received a score of 92 when compared to the 100 of the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 ($2954). The 10x Nikon Monarch 7 received a score of 87. But it has poor field of view, close focus, and eye relief compared to the 8x version. Still, a comparison point.

Conclusion for birding binoculars priced $400-$500


There is no clear winner among these 4 binoculars priced between $400 to $500. Nikon and Zeiss are perhaps better-known names in the United States. There are no bad choices here.

Check prices and purchase through Amazon:
Vortex Viper HD
Nikon Monarch 7
Hawke Frontier ED
Zeiss Terra ED

Best birding binoculars $250 to $350


I have selected 4 birding binocular models to compare. I also added the Nikon Monarch 5 because it is a best selling birding binocular. But I think that the very narrow field of view should really eliminate it from contention as a birding binocular. [See the special note on Nikon 5 below.]

Model
Size
MSRP FOV @
1000 yds
Close
Focus
Exit
Pupil
Eye
Relief
Weight
Athlon Optics Midas G2
8x42 UHD
$361 426 ft 6.5 ft 5.25 mm 17.2 mm 23.3 oz
Bushnell Engage
8x42
$343 426 ft 6.0 ft 5.25 mm 19 mm 23.5 oz
Barska WP Level ED
8x42
$329 425 ft 6.0 ft 5.25 mm 17.5 mm 24.8 oz
Nikon Monarch 5
8x42
$279 330 ft 7.8 ft 5.25 mm 19.5 mm 20.8 oz
Celestron Trailseeker ED
8x42
$267 426 ft 6.5 ft 5.25 mm 17.2 mm 23.5 oz

Specs and materials


As you can see there are 4 binoculars that have superior field of view compared to the Nikon Monarch 5. The other specs are also optimum on all the other 4 brands.

The Bushnell Engage has excellent specs. It excels at eye relief for eyeglass wearers assuring that they don't lose any field of view while wearing their eyeglasses.

The Barska WP Level ED is the only one of these binoculars with an open bridge. Instead of a single closed bridge the Barska has a hinge near the focus knob and another small one near the end of the binoculars at the objective lens.

As with the more expensive range, all these binoculars have fully multi-coated ED glass, BaK-4 prisms with phase coatings and dielectric coatings. They are waterproof, fog proof, and have rubber armor.

Athlon Optics has a warranty for damage from normal use as well as workmanship. The others are limited lifetime warranties against workmanship defects only.

I do not consider here the Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42 as it has only average field of view (393 feet) and does not have ED glass. It is priced under $200. Two other binoculars well under $200 to consider are the Wingspan SkyView Ultra HD 8x42 and the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42. Both of these do have ED glass and BaK-4 prisms.

I did not include the Wingspan Optics Thunderbird 8x42 at $279 as it is over 30 ounces in weight. The opticsreviewer.com praises the Carson 3D ED at $284 as the best birding binocular in the $200-$300 range. However, the narrow field of view at 341 feet and the poor 9.8 feet close focus, drop this out of contention as a good birding binocular for me.

A special note on Nikon Monarch 5 8x42


Nikon Monarch 5, the best selling birding binocular, is not a good choice as a birding binocular any more, in my opinion. The optical qualities are excellent. However, the field of view is much too narrow--like looking through a straw.

In about 2014 Nikon improved the Monarch 5 by adding ED glass and improved the optics over what it was. This was likely to compete with the Zeiss Terra ED. This was Zeiss's first venture into a low or mid-priced binocular, priced similarly at the time. As a result, according to opticsreviewer.com, the Monarch 5 became equal in optical quality to the Monarch 7, which sells for $200 more. The only substantial difference between the Nikon Monarch 5 and Monarch 7 (see my article) is that the Monarch 5 has a very narrow field of view (330 feet @ 1000 yards). The Monarch 7 has a very wide field of view (420 feet @ 1000 yards).

Field of view is very important to me in defining a birding binocular. If the field of view was even average on the Monarch 5, say, 375-390 feet, then the excellent optics of The Monarch 5 at such a low price would make the Monarch 7 perhaps unnecessary. As it is, the Monarch 5, though the best selling birding binocular, is NOT a worthy bird watching binocular because of its narrow field of view. There is now lots of competition in the around $300 price range, as the table above shows.

Reviews


At binocularsinsight.com he reviews and compares several binoculars, though none of the price/performance competitors directly. As expected, the Nikon 5 8x42 is clearer and brighter than the under $200 non-ED glass Vortex Diamondback. Likewise, the triply more expensive Vortex Viper is optically superior to the Vortex Diamondback. And the Celestron Trailseeker ED has better optical performance than the under $150 Celestron Nature DX. These fit with the maxim 'you get what you pay for' when the prices are significantly different. In general, up to at least $1000 with well-known manufacturers, the more you pay the better optical image you get.

Also at binocularsinsight.com he reviewed the Bushnell Engage 8x42 and was impressed with the sharp, clear, and "fantastic" contrast of this binocular. He noted this binocular seemed to have a brighter image than other "under $300" binoculars. That should include all the binoculars in our table of $250 to $350 binoculars, including the Nikon Monarch 5, which has always been praised for superior optics.

Wirecutter selects Athlon Optics Midas ED 8x42 as best birding binocular under $350.
https://thewirecutter.com/reviews/the-best-binoculars/

BBR (bestbinocularsreviews.com) had a favorable review of the Celestron Trailseeker ED. It praised the bright image in low light. Minimal chromatic aberration was noted. The image was sharp nearly edge-to-edge. It took 1.5 turns of the focus knob to reach from near to infinity. BBR prefers 1.0 turns.

Outdoor Gear Lab tested and compared 16 binoculars across all types and prices. Of note to our discussion is that the Athlon Midas 8x42 did not produce an image clarity as good as the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42. The brightness and construction quality were also rated a step below. In a separate review they received 72 out of 100 for various features as compared to Swarovski EL 8.5x42 ($2954). The focus knob was "finicky" in their review. For comparison purposes, the Monarch 5 8x42 received a score of 78.

Binoculars Guru noted slight chromatic aberration at the edge of the field of view on the Bushnell Engage. Clarity also diminishes somewhat at the edge.

Optics4birding found that the Barska Level ED is a worthy replacement for the out-of-business Eagle Optics Ranger ED, the "champion of the mid-$300 price range."

Conclusion for birding binoculars priced $150-$250


The Bushnell Engage seems to be the replacement for the wonderful Bushnell Legend L birding binocular. The Barska Level ED seems to be an equal replacement for the Eagle Optics Ranger ED. These would be my first two choices to buy as birding binoculars in this price range. The goal is to have as good of optical image quality as the Nikon Monarch 5, but with wider field of view.

I'm confused by the Athlon Midas ED reviews, perhaps because one model became unavailable recently and the new model (G2 UHD) is different? How can one reviewer call it the best binocular under $350 and other reviewers say it has poorer optical qualities than the Monarch 5?

I haven't seen the Celestron Trailseeker compared directly with any of these binoculars. But at the lower price point can't imagine it is as good as the Nikon 5. The Trailseeker is supposed to be optically better than the Celestron Nature DX. Yet one reviewer said to get the Nature DX at half the price of the Athlon, without recommending the Trailseeker. Lots of opinions.

Here's a review of the Celestron Trailseeker by BBR.



I'm going to keep my eyes open for further comparison reviews, but for now the Bushnell Engage and the Barska Level ED are my choices here. Again, these are all acceptable birding binoculars. Any of these are of better quality and optical performance than binoculars under $200. But these are not as good as the $400-500 binoculars in the top list.

Check pricing and purchase from Amazon:
Bushnell Engage
Barska Level ED
Nikon Monarch 5  (good optics but narrow field of view not ideal for birding binoculars)
Athlon Midas ED
Celestron Trailseeker ED



If this price range is still a bit high for you, see my article on birding binoculars priced under $200.



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